Saturday, July 10, 1999

Vaughn: A leader first, then a hitter




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CLEVELAND — Greg Vaughn is a contradiction in cleats. He is a one-dimensional slugger whose stats say All-Or-Nothing and a multi-layered leader whose every action beyond the batter's box says All-For-One And One-For-All.

        You can't get a good read on the Reds' cleanup hitter until you study his subtext — his body language and his blunt talk, the relish he reveals in breaking up double plays, the steady encouragement and the occasional reproach. He is one player whose portrait can't be painted by the numbers.

        “This team plays harder than any team I've ever played on or coached for,” Reds coach Ron Oester said. “I think a big part of that is Greg Vaughn — the way he plays the game. No one wants to win more than him. There's not one guy on this team who doesn't appreciate what he's done for us.”

        Oester's praise was unprompted, but not unprecedented. At least three prominent Reds personages have sought out professional snoops recently to offer unsolicited testimonials for the new left fielder — how hard he plays; how hurt he's played, the example he sets. Vaughn was the subject of so much spin doctoring on the Reds recent homestand that the reportorial reflex was to search for an ulterior motive.

A vet who understands
        Was Vaughn's delicate psyche — first revealed in the flap over facial hair — in need of some more stroking? Were the Reds trying to orchestrate some positive coverage to make their $5 million cleanup man more attractive on the trade market? Or could it be that Cincinnati is misjudging this man by making too much of his meager batting average?

        “I wouldn't want to lose this guy off our team,” said Dave Collins, the Reds first base coach. “He's been around and understands that the only thing in this game is to win. It's not about your statistics. His attitude has rubbed off on a lot of other guys.”

        So long as the Reds occupy first place with a deep-discount payroll and porous starting pitching, everyone with a microphone or a word processor will be out to unearth the root causes.

        Sean Casey's contributions have been obvious. So, too, the remarkable relief efforts of Scott Williamson & Associates. But while Greg Vaughn's power production is readily understood — he had 19 homers and 52 runs batted in at gametime Friday — his role in the clubhouse, in the dugout and on the bases is harder to quantify.

Voice of authority
        Yet no less an authority than Johnny Bench was struck by the force of Vaughn's presence after spending a night in the dugout last week.

        “He's brought an attitude to our team, a professional approach,” third baseman Aaron Boone said. “He comes to play. He comes to beat you ... I think he's been important in getting everyone else to say, "You know what? We are good.'”

        When the Reds were swept in Atlanta at the start of May, scoring four runs in three days and slipping into last place, Vaughn told his teammates they had lost because they didn't believe they belonged on the same field with the Braves. Some players listened skeptically, wondering whether Vaughn's voice would be as strong when he went 0-for-4.

        What they have seen since is a player whose posture is unbending whether he goes deep or goes down swinging. Reds fans have been slow to embrace Vaughn — some assume he is only in town as long as the Reds are in the race; others can't get past his batting average — but the clubhouse seems to be sold.

        Barry Larkin remains the Reds captain, their star and their moral center. But Larkin's leadership is subtle where Vaughn's is loud. It is the difference between Tony Perez and Joe Morgan.

        “Barry will speak when he has to speak,” Collins said. “Vaughn will speak at any time. A lot of times, when a guy is taken out for defensive purposes, he's going to go up in the clubhouse and ice down. But I've never seen Greg leave the dugout. He's the same in the first inning as he is in the ninth, encouraging our guys to play hard.”

        If there is an ulterior motive at work here, it would seem to be winning.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE